Aboard the Charles W. Morgan, 173 Years Later

In July 2014 when the Charles W. Morgan lowered her whaleboats onto rippling blue waters for the first time in nearly a century, her crew wasn’t hunting whales for profit, but instead unearthing her own historic past during her 38th voyage.
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In July 2014 when the Charles W. Morgan lowered her whaleboats onto rippling blue waters for the first time in nearly a century, her crew wasn’t hunting whales for profit, but instead unearthing her own historic past during her 38th voyage.

“We wanted to see how difficult it would have been for those guys back then to stop the Morgan, drop a whaleboat and row after a whale. Dropping the boats down was fine, but actually rowing after a ten-ton animal isn’t so easy. Then watching the whales swim around and even underneath the boat was exciting for us, but we were protected. It must have been a little more frightening for those fellas,” says the Charles W. Morgan’s captain, Richard “Kip” Files, of the crew’s whaleboat experience at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.

Though a major highlight of their experience, this “whaling” excursion was just one part of the crew’s larger mission to learn more about whaling history and the Morgan by sailing her, and to educate the public along the way.

The whaleship Charles W. Morgan is the second oldest ship in America; second only to the USS Constitution. She chased whales across the globe during a profitable eighty-year career that ended in 1921. In 1941, Mystic Seaport acquired the Morgan and put her on display in Mystic, CT, where she has since welcomed over 20 million visitors. In 2008, restoration to get the ship ocean-ready once more began, and in May 2014 the Charles W. Morgan set off for New London, CT; Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard; New Bedford, MA (where she was constructed in 1841); and Boston, MA.

Though much about this 38th voyage has differed from her previous 37 (like the use of a navigational systems and electric bilge pumps, plus the fact that no one’s eating hardtack), the captain and crew aboard the Morgan have kept her history alive by remaining faithful to 19th century sailing techniques.

“We’re learning about how it might have been a century ago when they sailed her,” says Captain Files, “They kept records, so there is some knowledge of how to tack her and maneuver her, but most of what they wrote down was about what they caught and how much money they were making. But Mystic did do a wonderful job of keeping her historically accurate. The sails are cotton, the running rigging is all natural fiber, the lanyards are hemp—so when we maneuver her we have to keep it very close to the way it would have been done in the 19th century.”

Even simple tasks like furling or hanging coils are done differently on the Morgan as opposed to today’s modern sailboats or even other younger barques, and that was a major learning opportunity for the crew.

“When we came aboard we all had to re-learn how to do a lot of things in the period-correct way. But it was cool to know that we were doing everything the same way it would have been done back then,” explains deckhand Ryan Loftus who had spent the last three years sailing tall ships in the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts before joining the Morgan crew.

While the crew has stayed true to the sailing methods of old, their living conditions are quite a few rungs above those of the mid 1800s. From installing four modern heads to adding electrical power, Mystic Seaport has made sure the crew’s living conditions are up to modern standards.

“When they built vessels like this, creature comforts was the last thing on their mind,” Captain Files explains, “Most modern sailing vessels are now built from the inside out and creature comforts are a priority. This ship was built with a different mentality.”

During her career, it was often intolerably hot or cold belowdecks, quarters were cramped—particularly for the unskilled crewmen in the forecastle, and the combination of whale blubber, oil and blood created a smell that was certainly not pleasant. What was important to those who built the Charles W. Morgan in 1841 was that she was built to pursue whales on a global scale, not that those on board were living in luxury, and in that respect they succeeded.

In regards to her ability to sail: “We knew she had to sail pretty well; she had to—she went around the horn thirteen times! But we were surprised at how phenomenally she really does sail. She won’t tack as fast as a modern sailing vessel, but if you get her going with the wind you can go for days without touching a sheet, and with 15 knots of wind she’ll stop dead in the water and stay in that spot. She had to be able to do that to hunt whales,” says Captain Files.

Another indication of how much time has passed since her last passage comes in the form of “stowaway” Ryan Leighton, who in true 21st century form has been using social media and blogging to share his reenactment experience. Before the journey, Mystic Seaport conducted an exhaustive search for the perfect stowaway, and in May invited Leighton, a journalist from Boothbay Harbor, Maine and a longtime adventurer but not a sailor, to come on board for the voyage.

“My goal in blogging aboard the ship is to consume as much information as possible and then translate it into a language that’s accessible to a broader audience. Not only are we trying to preserve the ship, we’re trying to preserve its history as well, and tell a new story along the way,” says Leighton.

Though Leighton came onto the Morgan as an outsider with little knowledge of sailing, he has been working to engage in the journey and absorb its history as well.

“I didn’t know anything about the Charles W. Morgan when I was chosen, but soon after I learned that the sails were made in Boothbay Harbor, my hometown, by the famous sailmaker Nat Wilson. Later I found out that the great, great, great granddaughter of Charles W. Morgan lived in Boothbay. As I learned more about this ship I discovered all these little ties I had to it. Everything that I’ve seen, learned and heard is just so deep and so rich, and I’ve immersed myself in every facet of it.”

Leighton isn’t the only one on board to delve into the ship’s history. While the captain and crew say much of their energy is focused on keeping the historic ship safely afloat, Loftus insists that this doesn’t mean the deep historical significance of the experience is lost on them.

“When you get used to working on boats like this, much of the time you’re not thinking about the meaning of it all. But all of a sudden when you have a quiet moment while sailing, it will hit you—we’re doing something that hasn’t been done in 100 years, and that’s pretty unique.”

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